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Tropical North Learning Academy

The program supports the development of personal qualities such as public speaking, working as part of a team, leadership and organisational skills


The Tropical North Learning Academy (TNLA) mission is to ‘engage young minds to meet the challenges of the future, by offering unique, world-class education programs from the early years to university and beyond’.

TNLA provides a seamless educational pathway from the early phase of learning to university and adult life. TNLA partners provide a range of ‘learning enhancements’, called academies, for students at all stages of learning to ensure smooth transitions between the key junctures of schooling.


  • James Cook University (JCU)
  • Smithfield State High School
  • Trinity Beach State School.

TNLA aims to improve awareness of pathways from primary school, through secondary school and on to tertiary education. It builds linkages and pathways between the partners to provide opportunities for students and their families to consider and pursue higher education. As a partnership it provides a forum to develop specific activities, agendas, or opportunities that can be negotiated and pursued collaboratively.

It also aims to improve the connection and engagement between the members of the TNLA, improving working relationships between the partners in development of knowledge, practice and engagement that advance these objectives in the pursuit of excellence in teaching within the partnership.

TNLA provides a means by which relevant strategic opportunities can be identified, evaluated and pursued by the partners, either jointly or independently, with the ultimate aim of significantly improving the enrolment and retention in each of the partner institutions.

Activities within the program include:

  • The ‘Young Scholars Program’ which gives students access to world-class teaching staff, specialist learning facilities and university-aligned academic extension.
  • JCU works with the Year 7 Trinity Beach student cohort via Smithfield, to support transition to high school and the Junior Learning Academy (JLA). Smithfield Year 8 JLA students are trained by JCU student ambassadors to be peer supporters to Year 7 students. Year 8 Smithfield students, as ‘JCU School Ambassadors’, take Year 7 students on a JCU campus visit.
  • Smithfield students from Years 8 through 12 access a wide range of JCU activities, including:
    >>campus tours and subject tasters
    >>affordability sessions about scholarship information
    >>presentations on Australian Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander engagement
    >>academic skills workshops, eg. academic writing, note-taking, academic reading and research
    >>JCU ambassadors assisting with leadership training.

From a tertiary perspective, the interaction with Trinity Beach and Smithfield has similar impacts on JCU students. The partnership has been a key contributor to the development of the JCU Student Ambassador Program.

The Student Ambassador Program provides students with an opportunity to share their own stories and experiences with school students and become role models and leaders in the JCU and wider community. The program also supports the development of personal qualities such as public speaking, working as part of a team, leadership, time management and organisational skills. The program supports students to develop their own ability to adapt and effectively engage with culturally and socially diverse groups of people, including schools students of all ages, school staff, parents and community members and organisations.

The TNLA has become a focal point for the interactions between JCU, Smithfield and Trinity Beach but it also transcends this relationship, and has become a key motivator for students at the three institutions to achieve within their own studies. As an example, Smithfield has a regular column in its newsletter that highlights the interactions between the schools and JCU.

The TNLA has fostered over 1,300 interactions between Smithfield, Trinity Beach and JCU staff, students, and parents over the last year. While it is too early to tell in a quantitative sense whether there has been a change in pathway for students, anecdotal evidence suggests a widening appreciation of the range of options available to students within JCU and across the higher education sector.

The partnership is bounded by an MOU that sets out, in a non-binding fashion, the shared understanding of the purpose of the relationship and the manner in which partners will work together. The relationship works because of a range of factors, including:

  • a shared commitment to raising the aspirations of students going on to post-school study
  • personal and professional connections between all partners through the close Cairns community
  • an appreciation and understanding of the internal and external forces operating on each of the partners and a willingness to give ‘room to breathe’.

While the HEPPP funding has supported the development of the TNLA, all partners would agree that funding is not a sufficient requirement: it is the long-term nature of the relationship and the shared commitment that leads to good outcomes for students and families.

A number of activities are being planned for the partnership, but central to them all is a focus on the development of personal connection and institutional understanding so that each partner can deliver on their mission, both shared and individual, in the best possible way.

A key direction for the future of the relationship will be research into the pathways of students. Central to this research will be indicators on when higher education aspirations are best fostered. Current resources are targeted at the upper end of secondary school, but JCU is keen to determine whether earlier intervention leads to improved impact.

The place of Trinity Beach in the relationship will be the beginning of this research, but the longitudinal relationship between the partners will give the richest data.

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This case study is one of a series of 31 presented in our case study publication, Partnerships in Higher Education.

Posted 10 March 2015 Posted in General, Indigenous